For a brief time in 2011, I had a place for everything. I discarded more than half of my possessions, with the idea of owning nothing that didn’t have its own hook, spot or shelf. Once everything had a home, I could put everything away in five minutes, and wake up to a clear space and a clear mind.
It took about a month to do — and about six months to undo. When I wrote about my success, I gave it the ambitious title “Everything in its Place, Finally and Forever.” Things eventually reverted to tolerable clutter. It never got back to a clothes-on-the-floor level of messy, but there are objects on the dining room table that are never used for dining, and books living on surfaces other than my bookshelves.
I have never forgotten the uncanny peace that comes from a home devoid of chaos. It’s a completely different home-life experience, free of a certain kind of tension that you only notice when it’s gone. Every item sitting out is an unresolved issue, both in the real world and in the mind. They give your day-to-day life a sense of perpetual unresolvedness, like you’re always in the middle of renovating or switching to new software at work.
I’ve been meaning to do it again for four years now, but it’s an enormous job, and the benefits seem to wear off too quickly. Unless you’re born organized, decluttering is a fight against gravity and entropy, and maybe some other inalienable laws of the cosmos.
The problem was my method. I thought tidying was just a matter of making things look nicer. While I was going closet-to-closet, purging and re-stacking, a tiny Japanese woman was developing a science around the idea of “everything in its place”. Now she’s got a million-selling book and a three-month waiting list for her services.
Her name is Marie Kondo, and she says our conventional notions of tidying set us up for relapse. When we’re children we’re told to tidy our rooms, which we know means “get everything off the floor and out of sight”, and we generally don’t develop the concept of “tidy” any more deeply than that.
Marie says tidying up is something that should done in one single, thorough effort, and it should last a lifetime, because it’s as much a rearrangement your philosophy as of your home. Our homes — and consequently, our lives — get messy because we have fearful and unhealthy relationships with our possessions. Where you keep your things is important, but it’s less important than which things you keep, how you feel about them, and why you have kept them.
A family member gave me the book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, and I’ve begun the process. Kondo’s prescriptions contradict almost everything I did when I first purged my apartment.
Some of her main tenets:
Aim for perfection, in one swoop — quit trying to do a little bit every day. One chapter is entitled, “Tidy a little a day and you’ll be tidying forever.” Tidying should be dramatic and thorough, because it represents a dramatic change, not only in what you own, but how you relate to what you own. Before you’re done, every item you own will have been handled and examined.
Sort by type of possession, not by room. Last time I went room to room, closet to closet, pulling everything out, purging things I could do without, and then putting them back neatly. This method makes for a clear space (for a while) but it focuses too much on what each room looks like at a glance, and too little on why we keep the items we do, and how it feels to own them. In Marie’s method, you go through all your clothes first, then books, papers, mementos, and so on. Gather every single book in the house into one place before deciding which to keep.
Do it in two distinct phases: discard, then arrange. In the conventional room-to-room method, we do the discarding and arranging at the same time. Choose something to keep, put it on the shelf. Choose something to toss, put it in the bag. Instead, go through each category of possession individually, donating whatever you’re not keeping. Once you’ve purged every category in this way, go through them all again and assign each item a home.
Keep only items that evoke joy. For each item of each category, hold it in your hands and see if it sparks any joy for you. If not, it’s detracting from your experience at home. Donate it. This criterion sounds vague, but it’s far superior to the usual ones: discard things that no longer work, that you haven’t used in a year, or which aren’t “useful or beautiful”. None of these tests work in all cases, because we keep different kinds of possessions for different reasons. Should I discard photo albums that I haven’t looked at in a year? Should I keep an old vase just because it’s still beautiful? The “joy criterion” seems to answer the broader question of whether an object belongs in our lives or not.
Be wary of storage. When we’re holding onto something that brings no joy to our lives, it’s either out of an unhealthy attachment to the past or an unhealthy fear of the future, according to Ms Kondo. A room that looks tidy but contains unwanted items in storage containers still feels cluttered, at least to the owner of those items. Decluttering is a kind of soul-searching — it requires us to make decisions about our values and our expectations for our lives — and storage is a way of dodging that important work.
The Joy Test
There’s a lot more in the book, but the central commandment is to apply the joy test to every item you own, right down to the post-its on your bulletin board.
Otherwise we end up with too many possessions that evoke negative emotions: shame, guilt, regret, revulsion. When you look in your closet, chances are half the clothes in there make you feel bad for one reason or another. You either never wear them, or they look dumb on you, or they cost a lot but don’t fit, or they were gifts you don’t like. This stuff is pure baggage, and we keep it everywhere, not just in our closets but on our bookshelves, in our garages, on our walls and in our cupboards. Cutting these emotionally draining objects loose is an amazing feeling.
The joy criterion seems to apply to everything else in life too. Suddenly I’m looking at all of my choices this way. If I have to choose between working on X or Y, I go for the one that evokes more joy when I consider it. Which fitness program should I follow? How should I schedule my day? What should I order at the restaurant? Should I keep working, or go for a walk?
The answers are surprisingly practical for an intuition-based method. But it makes sense, because the joy test leads directly to living from our values instead of our habits. You’d think we already do this, seeking joy by default, but often we’re working from another motive that doesn’t always serve us in the long term: familiarity, fear, gratification or sense of control.
There are some items that are necessary, even though they don’t seem to elicit any joy. Tax records, for example. But the joy criterion is broad enough to work here too — I know I’d rather have my records organized neatly by year, in crisp folders, than have them joylessly rubber-banded together into a large brick at the bottom of a filing cabinet. The joy test makes the emotional effect of each possession clear.
I’m going through everything this way over the next six weeks: clothes, books, tools and utensils, papers, mementos and even food in my cupboards. I’m done my books so far, and it’s wonderful to look at my bookshelf and see only books that bring me joy. I hadn’t realized how much of an effect my possessions have on how it feels to be home. I want my whole house to feel like my bookshelf.
This will be my 21st official experiment, and I’ll update my progress on the experiments page, with pictures. I invite you to do it along with me if it interests you.
What is the possessions situation in your home? Are you anywhere close to having a place for everything? What is ideal for you?